An interesting little background note before I jump into my review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson has popped up on the Bookly Club radar almost yearly, only to be outvoted by another book. Until this year, when we decided to read it in conjunction with the release of the film of the same name starring Michael B. Jordan as Mr. Stevenson himself. I haven’t seen the film yet, but if it is even half as good as the book, I recommend you watch it.
For those who haven’t read the book, Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s first hand account of starting the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law office in Alabama, the early days of his work, and many examples of the cases he has handled since EJI’s founding in 1989. If you’re interested in EJI, Bryan Stevenson, or a more detailed synopsis of Just Mercy, you can find all of that here.
I read Just Mercy over the course of about a week back in January, before coronavirus or quarantines, or working from home and parenting two small children who are now at home full-time. So I will be honest and admit that this review may not be as meaty as it would have been if I had just buckled down and written it immediately after I read it instead of putting it off until now, when my brain has been turned to absolutely mush by the current state of things.
I think I can sum up my feelings about Mr. Stevenson’s book with the following anecdotes:
- On multiple occasions, I made my husband stop what he was doing so that I could read a passage out loud to him or give him a case summary of one of Mr. Stevenson’s clients.
- The day after I started reading Just Mercy, I recommended it to basically everyone I spoke to. Luckily, my coworker had already read it, so I had someone with whom to discuss it as I read.
- It took all of my effort not to Google the cases he wrote about in his book. I knew I could easily find the results, and I DESPERATELY wanted to know whether or not the appeals and petitions and retrials and other efforts worked out in favor of those who so clearly deserved it.
All that is to say, this book is amazing. The work that Mr. Stevenson and EJI is doing is absolutely incredible and I am so thankful that there are people out there who are doing it. But it is also appalling. It is absolutely appalling to read about the failings of our justice system. To read about people who are so clearly innocent, but who are charged and sentenced to death because they’re black. To read about how difficult it is to overturn those convictions or to get someone off of death row. To read about how easy it is for some people to decide, so easily, that another person should die. To read about confused, mentally ill people who are on death row. To read about children who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison, in some cases for crimes in which no one was physically harmed. Can you imagine? A young teenager makes a stupid mistake, no one gets hurt, and is then told that what they did was so bad, they don’t ever deserve to be a part of our society again.
In some ways this book give me hope – hope that people who are wrongfully convicted or who are serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes will get the help they need in order to be free, to get their sentences reduced, or to get off of death row. But in some ways, it left me feeling hopeless… there are so many people who have been treated so horribly by our justice system. Why? Because people are racist. It makes me sick to think about the injustice of these cases and hopeless because as long as racists exist, these problems will likely persist.
Despite that hopelessness, there is an overall sense of action – there is work to be done and there are those who are doing it. And a call to action: Speak out against injustice. Speak out against racism. Stand up for what you believe in. Help those who need help. Use our talents and resources to defend those who need defending. Be a good person. Don’t be a bystander. Act. Participate. Vote.
So thank you Bryan Stevenson. Thank you for sharing your words and your talents. Thank you for giving us hope when it feels hopeless.